These Spurs Aren’t The Same

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Last season’s San Antonio Spurs had the best record in the Western Conference at 50-16. This season’s Spurs have the best record in the Western Conference at 52-16. It’s basically the same roster with almost the same exact record.

But it’s not the same team, really. And this Spurs team is better suited to win a championship.

Earlier this month at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford was asked about how open-minded Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is in regard to analytics. Buford noted how Popovich liked how the numbers often confirmed his basketball beliefs, like the importance of corner 3-pointers. And then Buford talked about how the Spurs dug into the numbers in the offseason to see how they can get better defensively.

“This summer, we looked at our defensive efficiency, which for years had been very high. And last year, we went in the 10-15 range. And I think we were valuing some things that weren’t nearly as important as the data showed us. We learned from the Celtics.

“While they were really high in defensive efficiency, they weren’t very high in defensive rebounding. And that was a big part of where our emphasis was, and it made us question is that really where we should be paying attention. And those were discussions that were then brought to Pop from our coaches and from our analytics team. And some great discussions came from that, that ended up having us reevaluate what was important to us.”

The Spurs ranked 11th defensively, allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions, last season. But that wasn’t just a single step backward for the their defense. When you compare their defensive efficiency with the league average, they had actually regressed each of the last eight years.

Spurs defense, previous nine seasons

Season DefRtg Rank Lg. Avg. Diff.
2003-04 91.6 1 100.0 -8.5
2004-05 95.8 1 103.1 -7.3
2005-06 96.9 1 103.4 -6.5
2006-07 97.4 2 103.7 -6.3
2007-08 99.5 3 104.7 -5.3
2008-09 102.0 6 105.4 -3.5
2009-10 102.0 9 104.9 -2.9
2010-11 102.8 11 104.5 -1.7
2011-12 100.6 11 101.8 -1.2

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

Now, the 2003-04 Spurs were one of the best defensive teams in NBA history, allowing 8.5 points per 100 possessions fewer than the league average. So there was nowhere to go but down. And San Antonio continued to rank in the top three on that end for four more seasons, winning championships in 2005 and 2007.

But continuous regression over the years led them to eventually drop out of the top 10 defensively, which is not where you want to be if you want to contend for a championship. Of the last 22 teams to make The Finals, only one – the 2005-06 Mavs – wasn’t a top 10 defensive team in the regular season. Six of the 22 ranked outside of the top 10 offensively.

The Spurs’ identity changed quite a bit over the years. And while they certainly became more enjoyable to watch as they improved offensively – they ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency last season – they became less qualified to win a championship. So a change was needed to stop their downward defensive trend.

Better to be good at the right things than great at the wrong things

There are four factors that effect efficiency on either side of the ball: Shooting, rebounding, turnovers and free throws. Last year, both the Celtics and Spurs were top five in two of those four categories defensively, but Boston was a much better defensive team overall, allowing over five points per 100 possessions fewer than San Antonio.

Celtics and Spurs defense, 2011-12

Team DefRtg Rank OppeFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTmTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
Boston 95.5 2 45.2% 2 72.4% 20 16.8% 4 .285 20
San Antonio 100.6 11 48.9% 15 76.0% 1 14.3% 26 .222 2

OppeFG% = Opponent effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of available defensive rebounds obtained
OppTmTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = FTA/FGA

The Spurs were an excellent defensive rebounding team and did a great job of keeping their opponents off the free-throw line. But there’s a much stronger correlation between DefRtg and OppeFG% than there is between DefRtg and any of the other three factors. The most important thing you can do defensively is make your opponent miss shots from the field. And the Spurs just didn’t do that well enough.

So, using the Celtics for comparison, Popovich and crew went back to the drawing board, knowing they needed to adjust their defensive priorities. Contesting shots became the new focus, even if it meant more fouls or fewer rebounds.

And being more aggressive in challenging shots is logical, because league-wide free throw rate has dropped each of the last seven seasons and is now at its lowest mark (0.271) since the 1973-74 season. Whether it’s because teams are taking more threes or because fouls are being called differently the last few years, there’s less risk in contesting shots than there was 10 years ago.

More contested shots = better defense

The Spurs’ plan has worked. While they’ve regressed a little in both defensive rebounding percentage and opponent free throw rate, they’ve jumped from 11th to third in defensive efficiency, because they’ve defended shots better and forced more turnovers.

Spurs defense, last two seasons

Season DefRtg Rank OppeFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTmTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
2011-12 100.6 11 48.9% 15 76.0% 1 14.3% 26 .222 2
2012-13 98.7 3 47.7% 5 74.6% 6 15.5% 15 .238 4

What’s interesting is that the Spurs’ defense isn’t forcing less efficient shots. Their opponents are actually taking a greater percentage of their shots from the restricted area and the corners (the most efficient shots on the floor) than they did last season.

But San Antonio is defending most areas of the floor better than they did last year. In particular, they’re defending the paint much better.

Spurs’ opponent FG%, by area, last two seasons

Area 2011-12 Rank 2012-13 Rank Diff
Restricted Area 59.1% 12 56.4% 5 -2.6%
Paint (Non-RA) 41.3% 27 35.2% 2 -6.1%
Mid-Range 40.4% 26 42.0% 30 +1.5%
Corner 3 36.3% 10 36.9% 8 +0.6%
Above the Break 3 35.6% 25 33.6% 7 -2.0%

The key ingredient comes from Brazil

A big key has been the improvement from Tiago Splitter, who has been the full-time starter next to Tim Duncan since mid-December, and whose minutes have increased about 5 1/2 minutes per game from last season.

With Duncan and Splitter on the floor together, Spurs opponents have shot just 43.7 percent in the paint. That’s the lowest mark for any two-man combination that has defended at least 500 paint shots all season.

Lowest opponent FG% in the paint, two-man combinations

Combination OppFGM OppFGA OppFG%
Duncan & Splitter (SAS) 229 524 43.7%
Sanders & Dunleavy (MIL) 246 553 44.5%
Hibbert & George (IND) 594 1,310 45.3%
Hibbert & Stephenson (IND) 461 1,016 45.4%
Hibbert & Hill (IND) 581 1,274 45.6%

Minimum 500 FGA

The Spurs’ defense has allowed a measly 91.9 points per 100 possessions in the 648 minutes that Duncan and Splitter have shared the floor this season and just 87.4 in 477 minutes with Duncan, Splitter and Kawhi Leonard on the floor. That’s a ridiculously good defensive trio.

Opponents have scored 95.3 in Splitter’s 1,662 minutes total. Only five players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes (two for Memphis, two for Indiana and the Clippers’ Lamar Odom) have a lower on-court DefRtg.

It may all come down to defending OKC

Overall, this season’s San Antonio defense is 4.2 points per 100 possessions better than the league average. So they’ve finally reversed their eight-year, downward trend and are playing their best defense in five seasons.

Allowing 1.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than last season, the Spurs are the sixth most improved defensive team in the league. And while five other teams have made bigger jumps, the Spurs’ improvement could ultimately be the most important, because they already had a championship-caliber offense and it was on the defensive end of the floor where they lost the final four games of last year’s Western Conference finals.

In the regular season last year, 15 teams defended the Oklahoma City Thunder better than the Spurs, who allowed OKC to score 105.9 points per 100 possessions in their three regular season meetings and 110.4 in the playoffs. This year, only one team has defended the Thunder better.

Best defense vs. Oklahoma City, 2012-13

Team GP OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg
Boston 2 96.7 98.9 -2.2
San Antonio 3 101.3 100.8 +0.5
Miami 2 110.9 102.2 +8.7
Atlanta 2 103.6 102.4 +1.2
Memphis 3 97.6 103.4 -5.8

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Oklahoma City has an effective field goal percentage of just 45 percent against the Spurs this season, down from 52 percent in last season’s nine total meetings. In particular, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha have shot much worse against the Spurs than they did last season. Westbrook has shot just 5-for-16 in the paint with Splitter on the floor this season.

Splitter played just 53 minutes in last year’s conference finals, 10th most on the Spurs and 94 fewer than Boris Diaw. But he played 34 minutes in the Spurs’ 105-93 victory over the Thunder on March 11, and was a plus-24. OKC scored 41 points in his 14 minutes on the bench, but just 52 in his 34 minutes on the floor.

The Spurs’ defense against quality opponents goes far beyond their three games against the Thunder. In games played between current Western Conference playoff teams, San Antonio has been much better defensively than any of the other seven, including the Grizzlies, who rank second in defensive efficiency overall.

Best defense, games played between current West playoff teams

Team Wins Losses Win% OffRtg Rank DefRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
San Antonio 13 6 .684 104.5 5 98.7 1 +5.8 2
Oklahoma City 13 10 .565 109.6 1 102.2 2 +7.4 1
Memphis 11 9 .550 98.8 8 102.3 3 -3.6 6
Denver 18 6 .750 105.3 4 102.9 4 +2.4 3
Golden State 7 16 .304 100.5 7 105.1 5 -4.6 7
L.A. Clippers 11 10 .524 106.4 2 105.6 6 +0.8 4
Houston 7 13 .350 102.2 6 107.6 7 -5.4 8
L.A. Lakers 5 15 .250 106.4 3 109.7 8 -3.4 5

Tony Parker could return from his sprained ankle on Friday, when the Spurs host the Jazz. With Manu Ginobili playing more consistently of late, San Antonio looks to be at full strength in control of the No. 1 seed in the West once again. And more important than what they’re doing offensively is how well they’ve defended this season.

So dismiss the Spurs as a regular season team at your own peril. They may seem like the same team on the surface, but the numbers tell a much different story.

30 Comments

  1. theholyspectator says:

    the thing about the mavs in 2011 comin up and beatin the heat was that that season was the first season the big 3 in miami came together…with all the buzz/media/craziness and still made it all the way to the finals on their first try….for spurs to come in and beat the miami heat..its not happening..miami learned from that series against the mavs, they are a lot better now than they were that year and even better last year when they did win it….i dont see miami heat losing to the spurs..no way would lebron and the big 3 allow it..we would see lebron drop 52/19/12 to bring the series back to miami and win it out there cuz we know they will have home court thru the finals… if spurs some how came to the american airlines center and split or took both games you know miami would just go all out on simple beast mode….spurs are a great team and coached very well…and to have their top guys be old geezers and still be the best team in the west..that says a lot about pop …but dont see them beatin the heat…i say 4-1 or 4-2..the days of the spurs are over…its the lebron james and miami heat era..not hatin on spurs just been realistic here

    • Marco29 says:

      To face Miami in The Finals, San Antonio will have to come out of the West and that will be a tough job with OKC, Denver, Clippers or Memphis in the West semis and finals.
      But if they make it there, I think they will be a good competition for the Heat as their roster is much deeper and their defense much improved (very good article by the way). Maybe Miami would win in the end but they would have to fight for each game.
      Would be a great series to watch.

  2. Manuel says:

    Excelent article. Thats explain by statitic, how Spurs stiill dominant without a lot of expostions like heat, lakers and other star builder teams. My predictin is: Next week is crucial for Spurs. Tomorrow at Houston, wensday come the nuggets and the friday the clips. If they beat these 3 teams…will no be mercy for the rest and the first contenders at playoffs race. Thats why Pop start Tony P a weak earlier, yesterday against the Jazz. He knows…Pop for presidend and Tony P MVP…GO SPURS…FROM PUERTO RICO…

    • Marco29 says:

      Right, the next 10 days will be crucial for the #1 seed. The schedule is quite brutal: Denver, Clippers, Miami and Memphis. If they survive that stretch, they will be all good. To bad, they lost yesterday against Houston.

  3. Quener says:

    Great and solid article.
    The last chart is very good to see the big picture: yes the Spurs have the better chance of all, but the Nuggets are scary too, with better winning rate actually (not better defense though).

    Now if you check out the “One team Eastern Conference”, it will be very boring.

  4. allanon says:

    Great article. Nice way to quantify what many have been thinking. Spurs seem better this year with same personnel as coach, but why? I hadn’t realized their defensive efficiency had gotten so much better and never realized they emphasized Def rebounding so much last season.
    The numbers on the Duncan/Splitter/Leonard combo are scary good.

  5. Willy says:

    You have just brought in all the lost Spurs fans who have had doubts over the last two years.

  6. jja says:

    we can’t tell who’s the champ this year remember the ball is still round!!

  7. sports fan says:

    The Spurs are very capable of winning the finals this year. Great mix of veterans & younger talent along with great coaching. Two years ago no one thought the Mavs were capable, don’t be surprised if the Spurs upset the Heat.

  8. Julio says:

    Good stuff. Pretty sure I got aroused from reading this.

  9. mmmm says:

    Man this is my team, i love this team, but as much as i like Duncan, Manu, Parker & Pop, i must admit i think Heat will repeat.

    It’s been a great ride guys, but all things must end sometime.

    • Jason Page says:

      The Heat are far better this year than last and I can not see anyone beating them. We will see series wins through out the playoffs at 4-1 or 4-2!

  10. McKinley says:

    Spurs do not want to see the Lakers in the 1st round.

    • J-Brown says:

      what makes you think that? The fact that the Spurs are 2-0 against the lakers this year? Or that the Lakers are terribly inconsistent and very poor defensively? Yeah…i’d love to see Nash try and stay in front of Tony Parker for a series

  11. floppymoose says:

    The chart titled “Spurs’ opponent FG%, by area, last two seasons” is interesting and raises further questions. One interpretation is that the Spurs have retooled the defense to tempt opponents into midrange shots, since those are the least efficient. But I can’t really tell if that is the story, or if it’s simply improved rim protection that is the deciding factor.

    Do you have any data on the relative importance of rim protection vs defending the 3?

  12. Rupert says:

    Rupert and pepe.. Spurs arent miami heat. They mold characters. Miami heat rings championships on trades and all star dunks. Get a coach with 899 wins and a big three without trades, your miami is nothing. Yakkss..

  13. Jose (Clipper Nation) says:

    Clips need to study the simple basketball fundamentals Thiago Splitter uses and the rest of the spurs so Clips can break them. Spurs its all about execution and making those perimeter shots that make them hard to defend. Blake needs to improv in the post or go back to his first season style of basketball he was more dominant then. I think Blake would thrive in Mike D’Antoni’s high Octane run and gun offense because in Blakes first season he ran a lot and the Clips would feed him the ball when he wanted it. Antother thing the Clipsters need to do is run the old spurs all four quarters and use that deep bench. Go Clips! Lob City!

  14. W/E says:

    Pop for president

  15. pepe says:

    They are one year older , as well….
    OKC Miami again.
    Forget it folks, do not dream…SA are old cows…
    Miami Heat repeat …

    • Jason Page says:

      Without Harden OKC will not get past the Spurs and probably have problems with several other teams they will potentially face! OKC had the better team last year than they do now by far! The Spurs are far better this year than last, as are several other teams they will face to get close to the finals and they will only get close!

      • @ Jason Harden Page says:

        you are soooooooooooooooooooooo wrong. OMG get off harden’s sack….we do not need him!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Tess says:

        OKC still has a great team, but they definitely took a step back when they lost Harden. Yes, the Spurs are older, but Duncan’s having a better year than last year, and Parker is having his best year ever. Meanwhile Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard have seriously improved their games from last year. The Spurs bench is still a bit thin in places, but their crunch time rotation is becoming a murderer’s row.

        Worse yet, Duncan/Splitter is a terrible frontcourt matchup for Serge Ibaka — he can’t really defend either one, and neither can Durant. Collison/Perkins might be their best defensive tandem for a Spurs series, and that would cost them everything else Ibaka brings to the table in terms of help defense, rebounds, offense, etc.

        I won’t guarantee a Spurs victory, but I definitely like their chances this year.

  16. ELISEO SORIANO OLDPATH says:

    Very Good article Mr.John… very informative
    Maybe this is the last ride of the Spurs…
    4 Champion Rings are enough now…
    it will be MIAMI time for now….
    LBJ for MVP…. GO HEAT….

  17. MHX says:

    I knew it! These spurs just feels different this year. Less blow outs but more consistent scoring differentials against opponents. They’ve learned to control the game more than to blow out and use bench to play out the game, which could open the game to +30 or +15. This year is looking great for the spurs as they can lock down any team they play against

  18. Jean_Phi says:

    Great article. Thank you John. This is some good stuff.

    No wonder why Popovich and the Spurs were’nt willing to get rid of Thiago Splitter at the trade deadline :-)

  19. boon says:

    in the past few years, the spurs have been starting an undersized center. that forced them to move duncan at the slot on the defense. i think it works better for duncan to just concentrate on just playing power forward just as it was when he was playing together with robinson. while splitter may not be a shotblocker, he’s actually quite good at positioning well on the defense.

  20. Yoann says:

    brilliant article. I don’t get exactly every stat unfortunately, but a brilliant article.

    • LakersWillWin says:

      Yeah, this is a guy that you sit there and think. “Damn, he’s good at what he does.”
      +1

  21. [...] John Schuhmann of NBA.com on the Spurs: “Allowing 1.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than last season, the Spurs are the sixth most improved defensive team in the league. And while five other teams have made bigger jumps, the Spurs’ improvement could ultimately be the most important, because they already had a championship-caliber offense and it was on the defensive end of the floor where they lost the final four games of last year’s Western Conference finals. In the regular season last year, 15 teams defended the Oklahoma City Thunder better than the Spurs, who allowed OKC to score 105.9 points per 100 possessions in their three regular season meetings and 110.4 in the playoffs. This year, only one team has defended the Thunder better.” [...]

  22. Gatez says:

    good article. stats do not lie.